By Matthew Everhard
With the close of another large General Assembly this week, the world of Presbyterianism begins to wind down what has been a very active summer of business meetings. Many of these meetings have been heated. Some have even been vitriolic. Each has spawned thousands of blog articles and Twitter posts.
The gavels have been busy. The podiums, once polished, have since been worn dull. The overtures—both ascending and descending—have been, well, ascending and descending for most of June and July. Most of the microphones have now been unplugged.
Let’s look at what has been accomplished…
One assembly (PCA) dissected the theological ramifications of intinction, taking communion by dipping the bread in the cup rather than receiving the elements in two sacramental acts. Another (ARP) spent their energy debating their relationship to an academic institution’s governing board. A third (EPC) made a political statement on a few clauses in the “Obamacare” act. A fourth (PCUSA) voted on whether to invest or divest in corporations doing business in Israel.
A brief survey of some of these more “interesting” matters debated may cause the uninitiated to ask: What is the point in all this? Indeed. What is the point?
I freely admit that my role as a Teaching Elder in the EPC comes with far more desirable responsibilities than reviewing sub-committee minutes. I would rather preach or baptize a baby any day. For that matter, I’d even prefer a church disciplinary hearing!
Nevertheless, I’d like to state a few reasons that all of these organizational structures are still part of the work of the Kingdom of God.
First, the Body of Christ by definition is an organic living connection of various parts, all in submission together to our Head, Jesus Christ. Paul makes this argument in 1 Corinthian 12. Of course, one of the best ways that we show our unity in Christ is by actually meeting together to worship. At each assembly, worship is an integral part. All the assemblies that I know of received communion as a major focus of the event. The worship and sacraments tend not to get much press, but are central to our summer meetings.
Second, meeting together as believers on a regional (presbytery) national (assembly) or even global scale is a biblical act. Acts 15 is the account of the Jerusalem council where one of the most pressing theological questions of the day was settled, that of the inclusion of the gentiles. This meeting took place by way of gathering the apostles and elders of a number of first century churches. By meeting to discuss the relevant theological controversies of our day, we are carrying on that biblical process of discernment, even though the councils of men do sometimes fail (WCF 1.10 and 31.3).
Ironically, these meetings that often display our disagreements are intended by God to show our unity. Anyone who says that the church of Jesus Christ shouldn’t have serious disagreements about weighty issues simply hasn’t read Paul’s epistles carefully. Don’t forget that another metaphor for the church is a family. Do you know any families that never argue?
Third, is there really any alternative? Sure, a church could refuse to participate or even to choose independence. Non-denominational churches have the advantage of pointing out the foolish decisions of other believers’ councils. But what does that communicate to the unbelieving world? That non-denominational local churches can’t get along with anyone at all?
I am not sure that independence or non-participation better communicate “unity” to the unbelieving world than rowdy business sessions on a late Friday afternoon.
The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 31 details the full theological underpinnings of our reasons for meeting together. There we read these wise lines:
It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word.
Call me a glutton for punishment. Sentence me to death by long boring meetings. But I still believe these words in our confession. I am still Presbyterian despite some of our lengthy debates and bone-headed decisions.
I will see you next year in Denver!